According to Islamic teachings, all the prophets taught one and the same deen, a way of life characterized by willing and full submission to the One God and obedience to God’s will.
In today’s context, the life and message of one towering personality have particular relevance for the Indian Muslims: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958).
In 1890, when he was still a little child, Maulana Azad’s family settled in Kolkata. He learnt a number of languages, and was also trained in Islamic disciplines and subjects such as mathematics, philosophy, world history and science by tutors employed by his family. He rose to prominence through his work as a journalist, espousing the cause of India’s freedom from British rule. He became a firm supporter of nonviolent activism for India’s independence and later rose to become one of the top leaders of the Indian National Congress, actively engaging in the movement for India’s independence from British rule.
Maulana Azad was passionately committed to Hindu-Muslim unity and a united India. In 1912, at the age of 24, he started a journal called Al Hilal (‘The Crescent’). In its pages, he exhorted Muslims to join hands with Hindus and work for India’s independence.In 1923, at the age of 35, he became the youngest person to serve as President of the Indian National Congress. He served in that capacity later too: he became the President of the Congress in 1940 and remained in the post till 1946. Particularly committed to building bridges of harmony between Hindus and Muslims, he opposed separate electorates. He also opposed the separatist ideology of the Muslim League. He was firmly against communal politics. He exhorted the Muslims of India to work together with Hindus and others to preserve a united India, where people from all faiths and communities could amicably live together.
Decades after Maulana Azad left the world, many of the things that he stood for remain as valid as they were in his time. His vision of a united India that included people of all faiths can be a source of inspiration for those who dream of peace and harmony between people beyond manmade divisions. His passionate support for inter-community harmony is as relevant today as it was in his own time. At a time when conflict in the name of religion has become endemic in many parts of the world, his example shows how religions can be interpreted as a means for bringing people from different religious backgrounds to work together for the common good. Islam can be fully compatible with inter-community harmony and unity for the welfare of all peoples, he taught us. He demonstrated through his eventful life that it is possible to be a devout Muslim and, at the same time, be sincerely committed to inter-community harmony and spiritual oneness, transcending religious boundaries.
Maulana Azad was a learned Islamic scholar, and he was also a passionate advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity and a free and united India. His commitment to communal harmony was related to his awareness of commonalities between various religions and his way of understanding Quranic teachings. He thus saw working for communal harmony as in conformity with his faith.
Maulana Azad’s inclusive approach to religion and religious pluralism, which sustained his commitment to working for inter-community harmony, has particular relevance in today’s context, where building bridges between various religious communities has become a major necessity, not just in India, but across the world.
In the 1920s, Maulana Azad began writing a translation of, and commentary on, the Qur’an—Tarjuman-ul Qur’an— although he could not complete the work. Here, he highlighted the concept of common ground between different faiths from both Qur’anic verses and his considerable knowledge of other religions.
While referring to unity of religion, the Maulana did not ignore the differences between the practices of various religions. He referred to a certain common essence of various religions but also noted that there are significant differences between them in terms of certain religious rules and laws. To use Islamic terminology, he distinguished between deen, which forms the basic core of authentic religion, and shariah, or legal rules, practices and so on.
The unity of deen is something that is taught in the Qur’an. The Qur’an maintains that aaGod has sent prophets to all peoples. Thus, the Qur’an (16:36) says:
We raised among every people a messenger who enjoined, “Worship God alone and shun the evil one.”
Elsewhere, the Qur’an (10:47) says:
For every people there is an apostle.
According to Islamic teachings, all the prophets taught one and the same deen, a way of life characterised by willing and full submission to the One God and obedience to God’s will. Thus, the basic teaching of all the prophets that God has sent to humankind down the centuries was the same.
According to Maulana Azad, deen includes belief in the One God, in God’s prophets, in revealed scriptures, and so on. He quoted from teachings of various religions to present this point. In the concept of the unity of religion, Maulana Azad’s emphasis was on metaphysical doctrines, on the one hand, and, on the value-structures of religions, on the other. He found similarities in metaphysical doctrines as well as in value-structures of different religions. These religions had come into existence in different societies, with different historical and socio-cultural backgrounds, and hence there were some differences in terms of laws given by some of them. That is to say, while the deen was one, there were many different shariahs. Some practices and rules in different religious traditions were based on customs and traditions through which justice was sought to be promoted, this being sought to be expressed in different ways in different cultures. For instance, rules for matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and so on are culture-specific, and so could not be universal, unlike basic ethical values and certain metaphysical doctrines. This accounted for some of the differences in various religious traditions.
Highlighting the common grounds between religions, Maulana Azad contradicted the approach of those who claimed that they were irreconcilable. Today, most, if not all, countries are multi-religious, and so the idea of the essential unity of religion is of great relevance for the ethics of harmonious living across the globe.
Here are some lessons we can learn from the life and message of Maulana Azad:
1. Be God-conscious.
2. Think in universal terms. Think in terms of the wellbeing of all of God’s creation.
3. Make promoting interfaith understanding and communal harmony a top priority.
4. Understand religion as a means for fostering consciousness of the oneness of humanity.
5. Recognise the good in various religions and their commonalities.
6. Cultivate an inclusive and pluralist understanding of religion/spirituality.
7. Work sincerely with people from other faiths and communities for the common social good.